What the startup journey is really like

Being a founder is not as glamorous as the stories you read in TechCrunch

I launched a startup during the worst time in modern history. I remember the dot com crisis of 2000, and have vague memories of the 1987 stock crash. But 2008 was way worse.

This was the once-in-a-lifetime global financial crisis that hit the banks and had the potential to destroy the markets, eviscerate wealth, and sink economies. With the credit market at a standstill, it felt like the entire world hit the pause button.

Eventually things recovered, but as a founder at the time, it was terrifying. VC’s disappeared, prospects ghosted you, and vendors wanted cash now or would pull the plug.

Luckily, we survived by doubling down on revenue. We found more work with our existing customers and got laser focused on talking only with potential customers that needed our solution right now.

I can sincerely say that I have never worked so hard, so long, and with so much intensity in my entire life. I poured my entire being into this one idea, desperate to make it successful at all cost.

This reminds me of some favorite quotes about entrepreneurship from two business icons that know plenty about the experience:

"As a startup CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every 2 hours and cried."

Ben Horowitz

“Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss."

Elon Musk

I was recently invited to speak at AWS Startup Day Taiwan on the startup journey and how startups are thriving during what has been a challenging year. To give some perspective for those in the audience, I shared my own journey as a startup founder and the emotional roller coaster it took me and my co-founders on.

My story started with me as the Innovator. While at Oracle, I saw HR leaders struggle with old HR systems that could not provide even basic information about the skills of their workforce. My vision was to create a way to measure skills quantitatively across a company to help C-level executives make more informed business decisions based on mapping talent and corporate goals.

I relished diving in as the Founder. I left Oracle to build my dream to tackle a massive problem. When you wear the name of Founder for the first time, you feel like a superhero and nothing can stop you.

Then you quickly get humbled as a Noob. I realized I did not know as much as I thought I did as we hit roadblock after roadblock. But I dug in because I was already committed and I thought everyone was watching (trust me, no one was watching).

I dug deeper as a Researcher, to find out what it would take to succeed, understanding customer needs, iterating on product, learning about the market. I was slowing moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence.

Then I became the Rainmaker! We got the product out, secured big customers, started implementing, and felt we were well on our way to winning. You feel like you finally cracked the code.

But I was becoming a Doubter. Implementations took longer, money was going out faster than it was coming in to build features, and sales slowed. Also venture capital essentially died as the 2008 financial meltdown wiped out VC’s and their LP’s.

And then I shifted to a Worrier, as unresolved doubts turned into desperation. There were unpaid bills, no wins, no income, no hope. Every day I woke up scared and every evening I slept in a blanket of fear.

I turned into a Jerk as desperation set in. My fight or flight mentality kicked into high gear as I pushed customers, partners, and co-founders. Things got ugly with every team meeting becoming a battle as we inched ever closer to founder divorce.

I felt like a Failure. When your big dreams for your startup begin to slip away, you feel defeated. Though we had a small exit, it did not make up for the blood, sweat, and tears of all the years and effort of building something you hoped would change the world.

In the end, I was a Burnout. Exhausted from journey, I became withdrawn because the startup was the only thing that defined my life. The feeling of anxiousness in the startup was replaced with emptiness and intense loneliness.

Time heals though and I became a Monk. Whether you crashed and burned or even if you exited, you come to realize that life moves on and so do you. But the Founder name will continue to define you, as you were one of the few crazy enough to start something in the first place.

I share my journey because you on your own journey, and no matter what stage you are at, we can and should help each other. We are all part of this global startup community. You can always reach out to me, Basil, or the AWS Startups team to help you along from idea to scale so that you can prove what’s possible!

Where are you with your startup? Have you felt any of the emotions mentioned above as a startup founder?

Is it doom and gloom for startup funding right now? A few weeks ago, one French AI startup, Mistral, raised a 113.5 million seed just one month after launching. This also happened to be the biggest ever seed round ever recorded in Europe.

The hysteria around Generative AI and ChatGPT-born startups is real. So far this year, about 20% of all global venture funding has gone into AI. That amounts to $25 billion in the first half of 2023, which is less than during the same time last year, but a larger share of all rounds closed. Some of the larger rounds have gone to Inflection AI, Anthropic, Cohere, CoreWeave, OpenAI, and Runway.

In terms of round stages, what we are seeing antidotally is that anything over a Series A has become significantly harder to raise. By many estimations, many startups that had raised Series A and later will face significant capital constraints leading to many startups folding later this year into early 2024.

The seed investment market however continues to be active, even for the non-AI startups. Seed-funded startups raised $6.8 billion in Q2 2023. While down 39% same time last year, it is still above 2020 with more than 1,500 companies raising a seed round of $1 million or more this quarter.

We are now on our SouthEast Asia tour and had our first stop in Taipei for AWS Startup Day Taiwan. What an awesome opportunity to connect with the Taiwanese startup community! Check out the video we created with the team.

The amazing AWS Taiwan and Hong Kong team!

Next stop is Hong Kong and Vietnam to dive more into the startup ecosystems there, so if you are around, let’s plan to meet. And since Mark is in Asia till mid-August, if there is an event that is going on that you think would be good for the Startup Advocate team to attend or speak at, let us know. Cheers!